The late Venezuelan leader attracted worldwide attention for his brash style of politics. His supporters viewed him as a revolutionary who helped democratize a divided society awash in oil wealth, but dragged down by widespread poverty. His detractors viewed him as a demagogue with an amateurish understanding of economics who polarized the country and upended its democratic institutions after 14 years in power.
Perhaps both sides are correct. In Latin America, populism -- a personality-driven, cross-class form of politics -- has traditionally held more sway than ideologies. Chávez’s style mirrored that of Argentine strongman Juan Perón more than that of Communist Fidel Castro. Unlike Castro, Chávez never got rid of competing political parties. Like Perón, Chávez clamped down on critical media and bolstered state media, but never monopolized control of the press, as in Communist Cuba.
Perhaps most importantly, Chávez kept getting elected. He won the presidency four times from 1998 to 2012 and defeated a recall referendum. Like most populists, functioned at his best in campaign mode, relentlessly beating up on a vilified opposition.
Among political scientists, leaders like Chávez are often referred to as “elected authoritarians.” Latin America’s had plenty of them. Some, like political scientist Kurt Weyland, think elected authoritarians in the mold of Chávez are making a come back. In a piece for the Atlantic, Weyland argues that the democratically elected administrations of Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina and leftist governments in Latin America have undermined a region that was in the process of democratizing. We’ll hold off on making those calls for now, while those leaders remain within the bounds of the term limits generally accepted as normal in the Americas.
In the mean time, check out five elected authoritarian governments in Latin America in the slideshow above.